Image: The late Mr Eric Bedford and the late Mr Howard Sheath. Mr Bedford, one of the first students to enrol in the External Studies program, served two stints as NSW Minister for Education.

This article was supplied and written by Howard Sheath’s children: Donald Sheath, Marjorie Nance née Sheath, and Helen Hunt née Sheath.

As UNE celebrates its 70th Anniversary, it’s an opportune time to reflect on the beginning of External Studies at the University, the provision of which was written into the Founding Charter of UNE. 

It all began in 1956, with the appointment of Howard Sheath as the inaugural Director of External Studies. He was so synonymous with the role that upon retirement in 1972, he was known as ‘Mr External Studies’.

It is now 40 years since Howard departed this life but the legacy he has left behind lives on in the hearts and minds of the many students, staff and colleagues he met throughout his journey at UNE.   

Howard was educated at Fort Street Boys’ High School, Sydney. In 1930-36, following completion of his Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) degrees at Sydney University, he commenced as the Mathematics and Science Master at Canberra Grammar School and then moved to Scotts College in Warwick Qld. In 1936 he joined the RAAF Education Services and in 1938 became the Principal Education Officer and then the Director of RAAF Educational Services in 1944. 

From 1946-55 Howard joined the Commonwealth Office of Education and Universities Commission (Department of Post War/Reconstruction and Prime Minister’s Department) as Senior Education Officer responsible for the administration of Commonwealth grants to universities, Secretary of the Commonwealth Universities Research Grants Committee, Colombo Plan Training at universities, Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme and Secretary Universities Commission in 1955.  

Howard was invited to become the Director of External Studies at UNE in 1956. He often said he spent the happiest and most rewarding years of his life at UNE. It was during Howard’s time in the RAAF he met the Late Sir Robert Madgwick, who in 1954, became the first Vice-Chancellor of UNE. Sir Robert was the architect and planner who had the foresight, with the founding fathers, to lead UNE into the field of External Studies. During World War II, Sir Robert Madgwick was the Director of Army Education and Howard was the Director of RAAF Educational Services.

Howard possessed outstanding qualities as a teacher, administrator, organiser and communicator, occasionally with his own forceful personality. This was evident right through his journey at UNE, getting the people and facilities working coherently together towards recognized goals set by the University. He was always mindful and conscious of the real function of a university, which was to acquire and disseminate knowledge. As he once stressed “after all, the success of a university must depend on the staff and its students.”

His family have fond memories of Howard frequently visiting students in regional and remote areas across the country. These students came from various backgrounds – schoolteachers, police personnel, farmers, road workers (some holding stop and go signs), nurses, mothers and fathers caring for young ones at home, retail workers, building labourers, etc. – all studying externally, many struggling financially and some living in poverty, whilst studying diligently to improve their education and quality of life.

Our personal experience of recipients of degrees through the UNE External Studies program, has been the gratitude expressed by several politicians, teachers, agricultural scientists, etc. who were afforded the opportunity to upgrade their skills whilst gainfully employed.

Howard was there for them, with words of encouragement, wisdom, guidance and strength, advising them to continue their studies for a better life ahead. He said it was a great joy to see the hundreds of externals mixed in with the internals strictly in alphabetical order to present themselves to the Chancellor to receive their degrees, but none moved him more than students with a disability. He was completely devoted to improving their education. As he once said, “Is there any wonder that I hated the very thought of retirement – of losing my association with these external students – all with their special problems, their difficulties, their hopes.”

On a humorous note, Howard referred to some personal experiences – the reasons for late essays and students’ inability to attend residential schools. Students often blamed their wives, their children, and their babies for late essays – the wife forgot to post it, the baby tore it up, one of the children threw it out with the rubbish. But one surpassed them all: In the student’s letter he said, ‘the cow ate it’. When Howard next visited the student and introduced himself, he said “I believe you have a cow which is partial to essays.” The student quickly responded by pointing to a cow and said, “that’s the cow over there.”

During his time at UNE, Howard also travelled to PNG, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Stockholm, the UK, Scandinavia and Zambia, advising on the development of external studies. 

During his later years as Director of External Studies, Howard developed a close relationship with UNE’s third Vice-Chancellor, Emeritus Professor Alec Lazenby, who summarises his contribution to the University thus: 

“One of the main reasons for establishing the UNE was to enable schoolteachers employed by the NSW Department of Education to improve their qualifications by studying externally.  Thus, following his appointment in 1956 as the inaugural Director of External Studies, Howard’s first task was to develop a viable program to achieve this objective. He was determined that external students should study the same curriculum as internal students and be taught by the same staff. He held lengthy discussions with members of the academic staff, some of whom were initially skeptical of this proposal, his case being presented forcibly and with conviction though he was always willing to listen, before his ideas were agreed and the first external students were enrolled in a range of subjects within the Faculty of Arts. Howard also held fruitful discussions with the NSW Library in Sydney to ensure that these students could borrow the books and other relevant literature necessary for their studies.

A compulsory residential stay of 3-5 days on campus for external students enrolled in each unit, together with Howard’s frequent visits to meet them, made them feel part of the University.

The program was highly successful, such that the numbers of external students soon exceeded those of internal students. It is not surprising then that Howard’s advice was sought by a number of countries seeking to establish external teaching and as a result, his program was accepted by countries the world over.

Howard, assisted by his small, loyal staff, established an external studies program which immediately became an integral and major part of UNE’s activities. This fact is as true today as it was nearly 70 years ago. Few can lay claim to such an important legacy.”

The family wish to express their sincere thanks to Professor Alec Lazenby for the above contribution to this article.